There isn’t any better sentence with which to start a review of her newly released novel.
The scope of the plot and the parallel development of the main characters are the perfect metaphors for the simple and yet very complicated concept of oxygen.
Vivian is a woman in her sixties who developed polio at the age of six and was permanently confided to an iron lung from that point on. It’s important to note that I knew what iron lungs were but I didn’t know that people still exist solely because of confinement to them in the United States – a place we just accept as some of the most advanced medical care where there seems to be a cure for almost everything. That Vivian never gives up, that she becomes a woman an entire community is proud to call one of their own, is a testament to the human spirit that seems so elusive.
Holly, the younger woman by a few decades, is the widowed mother of two teenage boys. Her life is falling apart and all she can do is grasp at the remnants and hope to keep something in order. Her desires are simple – a home for her sons and hope for their future. A badly damaged economy and a failing example of small town America conspire against her.
The constant in Holly’s life is Vivian. In the older woman who needs a machine simply to breathe, she sees someone who was dealt the worst hand possible in life. She sees someone who literally needs a machine to breathe. She sees someone who took that hand and turned it into something inspiring, even if Vivian herself doesn’t always feel so inspired.
In Holly, Vivian sees what might have been. She sees that life outside an iron lung might not have been all her dreams told it might. But she also sees that she’s part of a family and she cherishes that as her life draws to a close.
To live, we must breathe. That’s the message hidden in every line of this novel. Schoenberger makes it clear that breathing isn’t the same for everyone. We can’t always take the breaths we want and sometimes we have to accept that others breathe differently. What’s important, what Vivian and Holly learn is important, is simple breathing.
Without oxygen, life fades to nothing. That is the virtue of oxygen.
(I received a copy of THE VIRTUES OF OXYGEN through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. This review will be cross-posted to my blog and my Goodreads account.)